Let the 2012 patriot games begin

There is now every possibility that Obama will be defeated in 2012.

Did I ever say "I told you so" about Barack Obama? If I did, I never meant to and will never do so again. Besides which, it's too soon to deliver a definitive verdict on his presidency, especially when it remains to be seen whether he can achieve the miraculous feat of reforming health care. It grieves me, though, to report that a CNN poll has found that 52 per cent of Americans now think he does not deserve a second term in the White House. Even the hitherto Obamaniacal Washington Post - doubtless picking up on my idea that Hillary Clinton has her eye on a nomination to the US Supreme Court - is mooting that Obama should stand aside for Clinton in 2012, with the understanding that President Clinton II would nominate him for her first vacancy on the court.

Pundits are already predicting a possible Armageddon in the midterm elections this November, in a rerun of 1994 when Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. These days it is compulsory for every US politician to swear solemnly that this year's elections are the only ones on their minds. The truth, however, is that more and more attention is being paid to an election being held in less than 1,000 days - the next presidential polling day, which will either put Obama back into the White House for a second term or give the country a new, 45th president. Inside the Obama camp, strategising for what insiders are calling "the re-elect" has already begun.

Remember the names

Yet what had seemed inconceivable only a few months ago is now all too real: prospective Republican candidates for the 2012 election are already jockeying for the suddenly much-coveted presidential nomination, with every expectation that he (or she: we must not forget the lady known at high school as "Sarah Barracuda", the former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin) could become the next US president.

We should not pay too much attention to a straw poll at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) here last month, given the carnival atmosphere around the Marriott Wardman Park and that only 2,935 of the delegates cast a vote. But the results give an inkling of the angry mood among Republicans. The CPAC, once seen as an outlet for the party's far right, is much more representative of mainstream Republicanism now that the US is drifting ever further rightwards.

Coming in first was Ron Paul, the 74-year-old libertarian congressman from Texas who declares himself to be for "limited constitutional government, low taxes, free markets and a return to sound monetary policies" - or, in other words, no more cosseting and government handouts for you, buddy; now you sink or swim on your own. That, sadly, is the viewpoint of most of the 52 per cent of Americans who don't want to see Obama in the White House for a second term, even though Paul's nomination was a symbolic one, greeted with jeers as well as cheers among the delegates.

Second, and way ahead in the presidential stakes as far as the Republican Party establishment is concerned, was the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. But we should not easily dismiss the two candidates trailing far behind him: the egregious Ms Barracuda and the up-and-coming 49-year-old governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty. Or, for that matter, several other plausible possibilities.

Step forward, for example, Marco Rubio, at 38 a rapidly rising political star in Florida who may win a Senate seat in November. He delivered to the CPAC delegates exactly the kind of pseudo-patriotic demagoguery that the impotent and disenchanted want to hear. Immigrants from Cuba such as his parents, he said, "clearly understand how different America is from the rest of the world . . . what makes America great is not that we have more rich people than anybody else", but that "there are dreams that are impossible everywhere else but are possible here".

Throw in that kind of triumphalist exceptionalism that Republicans (well, all Americans, really) love, and combine it with seething anger and evocations of violence, and you get an idea of the potent mix facing the Democrats this November and in two and a half years' time. Referring to Tiger Woods's wife, Pawlenty yelled that "we should take a page out of her playbook and take a nine-iron to smash . . . big government . . . out of the window". Pawlenty and Rubio - remember the names.

“Hopey-changey stuff"

Violent imagery is also working well for Palin, who stayed away from Washington following her starring role at the breakaway Tea Party Convention in Nashville early last month. The party faithful now flock to her $100,000-a-time speeches ("How's that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?"), and she insists the only way Obama can save his presidency is to declare war on Iran, because people would think "maybe he's tougher than we think".

It's all enough to make you yearn for the relative orthodoxy of Romney (who nevertheless once drove his family on holiday to Canada with their dog strapped on the roof). He would face the disadvantage of being 65 on polling day, but (like Obama) is blessed with looks that make him seem younger. His Mormonism may kill off his chances in Middle America, though.

Most Republicans, alas, are hardly enthusiastic for a candidate who passed the kind of health-care reform in Massachusetts that the president is currently failing to do nationwide. Nine-irons and declarations of war go down much better with the multitudes of unemployed and economically suffering, who now desperately feel a need to express the fury that Obama's so far feeble presidency has evoked. It's not a pretty picture.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.